MMA

MMA in 2024: 6 Storylines to Follow

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2023 was a chaotic and eventful year in MMA. Between some low moments with the continued watered down UFC Apex cards, Dana White slapping his wife to kick the year off, and the force feeding of Power Slap down our throats at every turn, there were plenty of highs too.

We saw Jon Jones make his return to competition, the PFL purchase Bellator, Sean Strickland upset Israel Adesanya, Islam Makhachev and Alexander Volkanovski battle twice, and the WWE merge with the UFC. We also witnessed Francis Ngannou not fumble the bag when he shook the combat sports world to its core by nearly upsetting undefeated boxing heavyweight champion, Tyson Fury.

If the last twelve months were any indication, 2024 should be voluminous in the storylines and matchups it provides. The following list should be a helpful guide of what to look out for in the new year for MMA.

UFC Antitrust Lawsuit Set For Spring Trial

There is no story bigger and more important in 2024 than the UFC’s ongoing antitrust lawsuit progressing to the point of actually going to trial. Judge Richard Boulware of the Las Vegas Federal Court certified the case this summer, ending a near decade of stagnation.

Now I’m not going to sit here and pretend to be some legal expert who can break down the nuances of what this all means. There are far better and smarter people than me, such as Forbes’ Paul Gift, lawyer Erik Magraken, and Bloody Elbow’s John S. Nash who have provided extensive breakdowns of what this all could mean for MMA’s promotional leader.

If you’re a MMA fan, you should be locked into all of the developments around this case. The impact it could have in providing fighters with real, significant relief from the stranglehold the UFC’s monopsony has on the industry is seismic.

Bellator’s Integration into the PFL

One of the most exciting pieces of news to come out of 2023 was PFL’s acquisition of Bellator from Paramount Global in November. The move solidified PFL as the number two promotion in the sport, mainly caused by the upgrade of infusing Bellator’s roster into their own. However, PFL founder Donn Davis described it as more of a team-up between the two companies, than a true merger. The plan is that they will remain separate, with Bellator now being rebranded as the Bellator International Champion Series.

“Certain fighters, I’d like to take one of our own fighters, ‘Showtime’ Pettis,” Davis told journalist Ariel Helwani on his show The MMA Hour (h/t MMA Fighting). “You know what, that season product wasn’t great for him. He’s probably better fighting twice a year on a one-off event. Just to take one of our own. Fans love him. He can get ready for that. The season’s too hard at this stage of his career. That season’s the toughest test in MMA. He’d probably be great on that [one-off] product. So whether you’re a Bellator fighter or PFL fighter, we’ll talk to managers and fighters, and say, ‘What’s the best product for you? And what’s the best product for these fans?’ You’ll fight twice a year on the Bellator International Champion Series or you’ll fight in the PFL league season. Your choice, one or the other. The Bellator belts will still be at risk, champions remain, they’re at risk on the Bellator International Champion Series. PFL league seasons, still exactly what it was. Those products will both run during the year, so we have two big signature products.”

Ultimately, I understand what Davis is trying to do by keeping the two promotions as their own distinct brands. I even think emphasizing making Bellator a major player in the international market could pay dividends for them down the road. However, the move feels a bit shortsighted if they want to try to compete against the UFC. It’s as if they bought Bellator to just reimagine it in their image, rather than bringing the two together to become some new force in the sport.

Still, if we get to see matchups like Cris Cyborg vs. Kayla Harrison, Larissa Pacheco vs. Cris Cyborg, Patricio Pitbull vs. Jesus Pinedo, Francis Ngannou vs. Ryan Bader, AJ McKee vs. Clay Collard, etc…that’s only going to be a good thing for us fight fans. Not to mention, the hopefully increased financial opportunities it will bring for fighters via free agency. Overall, the new PFL-Bellator partnership is something I’m extremely excited to see launch in the new year.

UFC 300

Dana White has promised an insane lineup for the promotion’s monumental UFC 300 event in April. If you were around during UFC 100 or 200, you know the expectations for this event are through the roof. Especially given that it will take place around the time the UFC’s antitrust lawsuit trial is expected to start too, the pressure is on White to deliver maybe now more than ever.

He already announced the first three fights for the card, starting with undefeated middleweight prospect Bo Nickal taking on Cody Brundage. Also, former UFC bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling will make his featherweight debut against Calvin Kattar, and former UFC light heavyweight champ, Jiří Procházka will take on the returning Aleksandar Rakić. If that’s just the appetizer of what’s to come from UFC 300, I can’t wait to see how the rest of the card shapes up.

Conor McGregor’s Return

Regardless of how you feel about his antics or persona outside of the cage, Conor McGregor’s placement as the biggest star in UFC history is undeniable. Of the 10 biggest PPVs in the promotion’s history, the Irishman has headlined eight of those events. His gravitation pull is unlike any other fighter in the sport. The 35-year-old has been inactive for almost three years now and hasn’t fought since suffering a broken leg injury against Dustin Poirier at UFC 264 back in July 2021.

His expected return in 2024, at what many thought would be UFC 300, has much of the fanbase at a fever pitch. However, while McGregor himself is equally chomping at the bit to get back into competition, it doesn’t seem like the UFC themselves have set in stone when he’ll return this year.

“‘The Mac’ has loads to offer and loads to deliver,” McGregor said to talkSports’ Gareth Davies over the weekend (h/t MMA Fighting). “The lads here [in Saudi Arabia] are talking Manny [Pacquiao in boxing], the UFC aren’t talking any…give me something. You know what I’m saying? I was supposed to be back in April [2024], I was supposed to be back in April. It was supposed to be December. They’ve never treated anyone [like this]. No one’s ever been treated [like this]. For all the figures I’ve brought in this game — I sell more than all of them combined, yeah? I sell more than every one of them combined. No one in the history of the fight game’s ever been treated the way I’m getting treated at this minute, yeah? Through what I came through to what I bring, they f***** should open floodgates for me, yeah? And I’m waiting. I’m waiting and I’m waiting. My patience is wearing thin on me waiting.”

The continued anticipation of when and who the Irish star will make his return against will unquestionably be one of the biggest things to watch in 2024. Whether it’s against Michael Chandler, Nate Diaz, and Justin Gaethje in the octagon or Manny Pacquiao in a gimmick boxing match, whenever Conor McGregor fights again, it will be noteworthy, to say the least.

Alexander Volkanovski vs. Ilia Topuria at UFC 298

Feel free to call me a hipster for this pick, I fully get it. There just isn’t another fight scheduled in the first quarter of 2024 that I’m looking forward to more than this one. While some fans find the current polarizing fight promotion tactics from people like Colby Covington entertaining, I find them appalling, abhorrent, and dull. Coming off a year where we saw the lowest forms of trash talk from many other UFC fighters outside of Covington himself, it’s incredibly refreshing to have a matchup that doesn’t need any of that buffoonery to sell it.

As the late great Gorilla Monsoon once said, this is MMA’s version of the irresistible force meeting the immovable object. The questions and narratives surrounding this fight are enthralling to me. How does Volkanovski look coming off a devastating KO loss and on such a quick turnaround? Who ends up dictating the striking chess match that will inevitably take place between these two? Who wins the grappling exchanges? How does Volkanovski handle Topuria’s power? Can Topuria figure out Volkanovski’s feinting game?

I could go on and on for days about this fight, it’s that great. It’s usually exciting any time a long-tenured champion takes on an undefeated contender. However, the magnitude and stakes for this bout in particular feel astronomical. A win for Topuria would be a tectonic shift for the featherweight division while providing the UFC with a poster boy to build around in a potentially huge new international market in Spain. Whereas a victory for Volkanovski would be as reaffirming as any we’ve ever seen in the sport, against an extremely dangerous challenger no less.

If you miss this fight on February 17, you’re only playing yourself frankly.

Will Jake Paul & Francis Ngannou Debut for the PFL?

Much of 2023 for the PFL was about announcing things to set up for a big 2024. Amongst those announcements were the acquisitions of former UFC heavyweight kingpin, Francis Ngannou, and social media influencer/boxer, Jake Paul. The promotion and both fighters have made various statements that the plan is still in place for them to make their respective PFL debuts next year, although, I’m not buying it.

Ngannou and Paul each have lucrative names currently in boxing, specifically Francis. On why either of them would rush to fight for the PFL, likely against underwhelming opponents over taking a much heftier payday in the squared circle beats me. Especially if Ngannou has offers to box someone like Anthony Joshua or Tyson Fury again, I don’t see him passing on that opportunity to fight whoever the PFL could currently get at heavyweight. I’m skeptical this ever comes to fruition for the promotion, but either way, seeing if Ngannou and Paul actually compete for the PFL in 2024 will be intriguing nonetheless.

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